Citroen ‎Conservatoire :: A look through 96 years of heritage

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With a history that dates back to 1919, Citroen has a long legacy behind it. In Australia since 1920, the French brand renowned for being ‘different’ is also the longest running continually sold marque in the country. So when CarAdvice was presented with the opportunity to get up close and personal with near-on 100 years of Citroen product at the brand’s own CitroenConservatoire in France, we couldn’t say yes fast enough. All starting with industrialist, entrepreneur and munitions tycoon Andre Citroen, the double chevron-fronted car maker has, from the very beginning, intentionally sought to think beyond the norm. Following a pre-World War I meeting with US car giant Henry Ford, Andre Citroen recognised that the only way to develop a car industry in France, and become a French Henry Ford, would be to build a complete mass produced standardised vehicle on an assembly line. The first model to result from this thinking was the rear-wheel-drive Citroen Type A in 1919. Ten years later in 1929, with subsidiary production plants in Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK, Citroen was Europe’s number one automotive manufacturer with 100,000 cars built a year. With Citroen’s production headquarters still based in the heart of France – two kilometres from the Eiffel Tower, which famously wore the company’s name between 1925 and 1934 – the brand was very much a Parisian brand. And it remains proud of, and true to that fact, even today. Located around 10 minutes from Paris’ Charles de Gaulle international airport, the CitroenConservatoire has a total collection of 650 cars – the largest in the world – with 300 on display at any given time inside a warehouse at the old Aulnay-sous-Bois production facility. Taking us through the vast exhibition, Citroen Heritage operations manager Marc-Andre Biehler, explains that the cars on display at the ‎Conservatoire the day we are there are merely part of a wider collection that sees about 100 cars going to other museums every year. Other locations include DS World Paris, DS World Shanghai, and the Citroen Experience Centre in Sao Paulo. There is also a reserve of non-restored vehicles and modern vehicles that can be brought out to maintain exhibition numbers. “It’s not a static exhibition,” Biehler says. “It’s always moving and more than 100 vehicles change location every year.” Walking through the exhibition’s 6500 square metres, we slowly pace up to the Traction Avant – the company’s first front-wheel-drive car and a model that signified a new era in production. Launched in 1934, the Traction Avant was designed by Andre Lefebvre and Flaminio Bertoni and simply put, it was a revolution. Employing a unibody (frame and body) design rather than a conventional body-on-frame setup, the car had its engine and transmission bundled together in a separate section at the front of the car, with the cabin (and rear wheels) attached separately. Remarkably, the Traction Avon was produced right up until 1957 – two years after the 1955 Paris motor show debut and subsequent launch of the iconic, and hugely ahead of its time, DS. The collection comprises concept cars from motor shows gone by and a range of cars from Citroen’s motorsport past, including successive rally cars stamped with the name of a certain nine-time World Rally Championship (WRC) driver, Mr Sebastien Loeb. Other vehicles of particular note are the SM, GS, Mehari, BX, Visa, the ‘one-box’ Type H, a turbocharged two-cylinder V4-powered DS 21, and, of course, the 2CV (produced in France between 1948 and 1988 but continued in Portugal until July, 1990 – that’s one year after the debut of the first-generation Mazda MX-5 in 1989). Biehler says while the current collection sits at 650 cars, that number grows every time a new Citroen, such as the C4 Cactus, is launched. As impressive as the collection is, Biehler says there are still certain models missing. “From every car there are a lot of versions, so we will never have all the versions, of course not. We don’t have a first C5 – so it’s one missing – but of course, if we find some interesting cars with interesting history, we are always happy to have some ‘gifts’.” Andre Citroen died in 1935, aged 57. In 1976, Citroen merged with Peugeot to create the Peugeot/Citroen Group. The CitroenConservatoire is open to the public by appointment, with a visit setting you back around $11.00 (7 euro) per person. Whether you’re a Citroen fan, a classic car devotee or simply fascinated by history, if you’re ever in France, we’d highly recommend spending some time at the Conservatoire. A true ‘experience’ if ever there was one. Click on the Photos tab to see the full gallery of CitroenConservatoire images by David Zalstein.